Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 is a somewhat baffling work. It lacks an obvious tonal centre, and is remarkably experimental in terms of instrumentation and techniques. That Schoenberg was a fan is perhaps unsurprising; in it, you can almost hear Mahler reaching for the future. However, at times it can feel like an experiment, rather than the expression of feeling for which Mahler is most fondly appreciated.
The London Symphony Orchestra under Daniele Gatti’s baton came perhaps as close as possible to making the experimental feel expressive on Sunday night at the Barbican. Gatti has not conducted the LSO for nearly 20 years, all the more astonishing a fact given the assuredness of the performance. At times Gatti was almost stationary on the podium, inviting the orchestra to come to him; in other moments it felt as if he and the orchestra were partners in a dance.
It was perhaps a longer than usual performance, and in the larger outer movements the expansiveness worked well. Both movements were powerfully weighty, moving between darkness and triumph, but never overwrought or brittle. Gatti maintained a tight control throughout the entire work, making full use of the London Symphony Orchestra’s confident unity.
The inner movements, though no less controlled, were not quite as successful, feeling episodic and at times repetitive. It is unfair to blame the orchestra or Gatti for this, as this is the nature of the music, and it cannot be said that they lacked effort or focus. However, some of the effects intended were not entirely successful, such as the distancing at the opening of Nachtmusik (I), and the cowbells later on. The latter felt almost accidental, as if they were trying to move them into position for later use, rather than intending them to sound at that moment.
The saving grace for these inner movements is that Gatti and orchestra did not shy away from the forward-looking nature of the music. The music never settles comfortably, with Mahler taking the opportunity to experiment with his orchestral writing, including the opening of the Scherzo with percussion, the percussive col legno in Nachtmusik (I) and introducing mandolin and banjo in Nachtmusik (II). The orchestra committed fully to this experimentation and its unsettling effects.
There was even a sense of the music parodying itself. It was unclear whether this was good-natured or darker, and this ambiguity added to the interestingly unsettling experience. The Scherzo was the most successful, channelling a sense of foreboding menace through a polite dance, and hearing the entire first violin section glissando shriek as one was especially impressive. Overall, a faster tempo would have given these inner movements more momentum, and lessened the episodic, repetitive feeling.
In the final movement, we moved from ambiguous shadow to triumphant light; there was still humour, but here it good-natured in feel. Confusion was over and we emerged into the glare of day. Changes to tempi and style were agile and flexible as the orchestra moved towards a rousing end, the final chord slamming home in C Major. The performance might not have answered all the questions Mahler’s Seventh asks, but answered more than most. Let us hope we do not have to wait nearly two more decades for Daniele Gatti's next turn on the podium for the London Symphony Orchestra.